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We’ll be meeting on Zoom today: online classes and a liberal arts education

Colleges across the country have been navigating the jump between in-person and online teaching, and Carleton is no different. Navigating this situation begs the question of how these decisions are being made and where the policies lie. 

According to Dean of the College Gretchen Hofmeister, somewhere between 10-15% of faculty went online the first week of Winter Term. This came at a time when the college was returning to a largely in-person model of instruction. 

As the pandemic has evolved, so have expectations for modes of instruction. Both this fall and winter, administration decided that in-person teaching would be the expectation. 

“Starting last summer, we were communicating to faculty that the standard is in-person teaching,” Hofmeister said. “The understanding was that courses were going to be taught in-person.” 

Administrators like Hofmeister were then faced with the predicament of developing a completely in-person classroom experience at a time when many faculty, staff and students were still wary  of the virus. The policy in place for determining whether a faculty member can switch to online instruction is very important in developing an in-person learning environment. 

In the fall, Hofmeister continued working under the pre-COVID-19 policy that was in place to handle faculty absences. If faculty had to be absent before COVID-19 due to a family emergency or illness, they were required to communicate with Dean Hofmeister and their department chair to come up with a plan. Solutions included having a colleague cover their class, moving to Zoom for a day or cancelling the class. 

This policy worked during the pandemic but was far from ideal. Many faculty had to quarantine and isolate in the fall due to COVID-19, creating difficulties for department chairs tasked with tracking absences. Many professors were more comfortable teaching online, and could make that switch with minimal disruption, as they had experience with Zoom. 

“Fall Term, we were working under an old protocol which said generally if people have to miss multiple classes, you have to inform the chair so that you don’t just disappear for two weeks and no one knows where you are,” said chair of the History department Serena Zabin. “But then as people were going off and online, they were texting and calling me as the chair all the time. It was overwhelming, and it made no difference to me if one of the professors had to go online.”

To adapt to the increase in absences, Hofmeister altered the policy during Fall Term. Faculty still needed approval if they were going to not teach in-person. But Hofmeister allowed them to get a “pre-approval” if faculty knew they were at risk of needing to go online. 

“The problem was that there were a lot of steps to take when they needed to make a decision quickly,” Hofmeister said. “If faculty had a child in daycare and they might be in a situation where they need to isolate at some point in the term, they’d tell me how they would manage it and I’d pre-approve their plan and they would implement it if they needed to implement it.” 

Omicron would bring yet more disruption in the winter. To account for this, Hofmeister eliminated the policy that required her approval if faculty wanted to teach online, moving to a model where faculty simply had to inform her that they were switching modes of instruction. 

Currently, if a faculty member wants to go online, they have to fill out a Google Form. The form gives faculty three general reasons why faculty would go online: “1) student absences, 2) faculty member’s personal situation or 3) because they believe it is the best pedagogical choice for their course during the early part of the term.” 

The form also has a comments section where faculty can further explain their reasoning or give the details of their plan for going online. Faculty do not have to specify how long they are going online, and Hofmeister does not have to approve their plan. The choice is up to the faculty to navigate the uncertain spectrum of risk which the pandemic forces upon us all. 

Sociology and Anthropology Professor Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg kept all her classes in-person throughout the wave of the COVID-19 Delta variant that washed over the country in the fall. She also began Winter Term in-person. But when case numbers came back after the first round of baseline testing, she quickly made the switch to online. 

“I stayed in person all fall, but after that first day of in-person this Winter Term with Omicron, I went to teaching remotely,” Feldman-Savelsberg said. “I’m hoping the numbers will go down sufficiently and we’ll all feel safe to return to in-person.” 

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